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By Cindy Hill
Love transcends cultural identity in the rock musical, "AIDA," playing at Karamu House, May 23-June 16. Based on the opera by Guiseppe Verde, this Tony award-winning musical is scored by Elton John and Tim Rice.
Karamu’s President and CEO, Tony Sias, produces and directs this season’s culminating performance. “I love the music and powerful story of passion, loyalty and betrayal,” says Sias. “Our high caliber professional talent portrays the spirit of two cultures,” he says. “The African diaspora really comes to life in this piece.”
Karamu means “joyful, gathering place” in Swahili. Patrons will experience the vibrant musical production in Karamu’s revitalized Jelliffe Theater. Performances are Thursday-Sunday evenings, with matinees on the weekend.
Sias invites theater lovers from across Northeast Ohio. “Come to the heart of the city of Cleveland, to the oldest African American theater in the country, for a premiere theater experience,” he says.
Rooted in its proud heritage, 104-year-old Karamu House has set a course for its second act, Karamu 2.0. “Our vision is to regain our place on the national and international stage and become a premiere arts and historic destination,” says Sias.
Since 2015, Sias has navigated the largest turnaround in Karamu’s history. Aseelah Shareef, Director of Operations and Community Engagement, explains the important changes in staffing. “Staff must bring both artistic competencies and administrative skills to the job. That way, we all see things from two sides,” says Shareef, trained in dance. “Art relies on constant communication to get to the best product.”
Shareef maintains operational efficiency across Karamu’s three product lines: theater, community programming and arts education. She also curates culturally and socially relevant arts education for the neighborhood.
Karamu has added breadth to its community programming, such as music, comedy, lectures and workshops. And with his deep knowledge of arts education, Sias has developed the mastery model for its arts education, which is central to Karamu’s mission.
“We offer a sequential, mastery-level arts education program, that’s rigorous,” says Sias. Cleveland School of the Arts brings its Kindergarten-8th grade for arts education. Karamu’s Summer Arts Intensive is offered to 7th-12th grade students. “And when any child enrolls in a class, the parent can take any class for free,” says Sias. “Those families certainly enjoy a different conversation on their drive home.”
In response to a national shortage, a new Technical Theater Training pilot program will soon train women and people of color, age 19-24, in technical theater – the sound, set, lighting, scenic and costuming arts that brings productions to life.
The arts are a proven economic engine for development and inclusive job opportunities. That’s why Cleveland Clinic, Karamu House and Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation (FRDC) have partnered in projects along Quincy Avenue and the new Opportunity Corridor.
Karamu has been an arts anchor for the Fairfax neighborhood a century. “Karamu’s new place making projects are helping to revitalize the whole neighborhood,” says Denise VanLeer, Executive Director, FRDC.
Karamu’s name is Swahili for “joyful, gathering place.” $1.6 million in recent funding from the Cleveland Foundation will enhance patron comfort with improvement projects – a new audience lounge, renovated lobbies, an outdoor plaza and bistro. “We want Karamu to be a social hub, a gathering place for our increasingly diverse audiences from across the region,” says Shareef.
With one foot stepping into its next century, Karamu is keeping its other foot planted in its rich cultural history. Karamu is partnering with Cleveland Museum of Art, The Cleveland History Center and The Cleveland Public Library to digitize and organize its vast historical archives for online access. “We have carefully preserved our artifacts of Cleveland history, African American Theater history, American Theater history and Fairfax history. Now we want to share it.”
Van Leer sums up Karamu’s impact. “Karamu is a great, energetic partner. I am happy to see it thriving, growing and producing outstanding theater. The leadership and staff have brought excitement back to this national treasure – and to the Fairfax community, the city of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.”
Buy your tickets to "AIDA" today and support Karamu’s mission to produce professional theatre, provide arts education and present community programs for all people while also honoring the African-American experience.
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